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March 13, 2014

Putin, the Olympics, and Inequality

Vladimir V. Putin, the former KGB Colonel, has mastered the repression of others, and perhaps that of self. He frets about homosexuality, yet he has a penchant for macho self-portraiture. He is frequently photographed shirtless, tight-breeched, and posed: Vlad on a horse, Vlad with a gun, Vlad with a long fishing rod, Vlad with a big, dangling knife at the waist. Vlad does not do wimp.

The Sochi Winter Olympics were Putin’s big show, and the ski jump is the games’ big show. Once he is committed to the slope, the ski jumper can only fly where his skis are pointing. The world is also headed down a long slope, the Pax Americana to its back, crosshatched with meaningless red lines, and headed in the direction Mr. Putin’s nipples are pointing. You cannot steer a bobsled while leading from behind, and a gold medal in the teleprompter is simply not enough.

The Olympic flame illuminates individual achievement at the Olympic venues. The flames of Kiev illuminate the Russian tradition of repression of the individual. While the hockey players were beating the ice with their sticks, the Sochi police were beating members of the Putin-defying, edgy, female punk band Pussy Riot with their whips. Autocrats are riot pussies – their thin skins compel them to squash any street dissent. Some prominent Democratic politicians also dislike dissent, but they send IRS agents rather than Cossacks.

The Olympics undermine the next campaign platform of the Democratic Party: inequality. Few of us can do double-flipping, ten-eighties with a snowboard strapped to our feet. Inequality is the human condition, thus any campaign against inequality is really a campaign against humanity and the human experience.

Every human being is unique. Some are athletic, and some are not. Some are beautiful, and some are not. Some are smart, and some are not. Some are financial wizards, and some are not. Some work hard, and some do not. Some are lucky, and some are not.

In a free society, some people will be more successful than others. It is impossible to create equality of results in any human society. In fact, societies with the greatest economic inequality are those with the largest footprint of government and cronyism, like the old Soviet Union. If everyone were suddenly made materially equal, certain individuals would immediately want more stuff and would work or trade to get it. Eventually, the material distribution would be right back where it started.

If a man has an ox and his neighbor has three, the man might covet his neighbor’s “extra” ox. The fallen nature of man was quickly recognized, so somebody decided to etch in stone that men should not covet each other’s oxen. But people cannot help but covet other people’s stuff, and there is no shortage of politicians who will seize that stuff and trade it for votes. Given human nature, it is dangerous for citizens of a republic to sell their votes to pursue equality of stuff.

The Olympics inspire individuals to maximize their athletic potential. Revolutions can inspire a society’s economic potential, as long they promote individual freedom, property rights, and the rule of law. The Ukrainians, who are very poor, stand at a fork in the road. The path to the East is the path of Putin, of cronyism, of oppression, of arbitrary law, and of fear. The path to the West is the path of greater freedom, property rights, and the chance of prosperity.

In the closing ceremonies at Sochi, a huge Russian bear blew out the Olympic flame, glowing like ten million candles. That is about the same number of human flames that Stalin blew out in the Holodomor – the Ukrainian famine of the 1930’s. The bear then shed a tear as a farewell gesture.

Putin weeps for Russia’s glorious former past, but it is a past marked by human misery caused by human beings like him. The Ukrainians have shed enough tears and blood. A great man would help them pursue individual glory, but a great man must first be a good man.

If the Ukrainians someday find themselves free of Putin and materially unequal, they will have created a healthy, market economy. If they remain materially equal, or under Putin, they will still be poor.

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